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mythology and folklore

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Using anon because I'm a bit worried this is a silly question.... :invisible

Sometimes when I read fantasy, I wonder, how did the authors research the background of the myths/lore they draw on? For example, I recently read some books about faeries. Now, this is not a faerie-specific question, it's just a good example of what I'm talking about. How did they know all of those things about the iron and the changelings and everything? I mean, is it just a matter of pulling it up on Wikipedia, or is there something I'm totally missing?
I hope I'm making sense. What I'm wondering is, when you're using some piece of mythology or lore in your writing, something where there aren't heaps of easily-found sources like with Greek mythology, and something with possibly many variations across time and cultures (mermaids and selkies would be a good example here), where do you find your sources to learn about the currently existing myths, to use as a starting point or knowledge base?

Thanks!
#1 - May 05, 2012, 12:40 PM

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Um... at the risk of stating the obvious, the library.

Also the country of origin in question, its canon of literature, its old folks/verbal storytelling tradition, and the massive amount of academic study of world mythology/lore and comparative literature.

But maybe I'm not understanding the question?

#2 - May 05, 2012, 12:47 PM
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I agree with Joni. There's no substitute for being widely read. If you aren't now, read more widely. Your own brain will then give you a starting point.

And do some poking around at the library -- ask a reference librarian about folklore sources, use the catalog to dig up information about whatever it is that interests you. When you find a book that has information about changelings, look into the books that author has cited as sources.

If this stuff interests you, it's not something you'll do for a month when starting a new project. It's what you'll be doing all the time. And none of it will be wasted. It will all feed your creativity.

Don't feel silly asking questions, or at a library. Just go do it!
#3 - May 05, 2012, 01:33 PM
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If this stuff interests you, it's not something you'll do for a month when starting a new project. It's what you'll be doing all the time.

Oh, soooo true. You just pick up little tidbits everywhere, over years, and stash them away in your brain (or notes) until they pop out in stories years later.
#4 - May 05, 2012, 07:34 PM
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My book is based on Korean mythology. There isn't much out there due to Buddhism getting rid of much of it when there was a shift in religions so I had a hard time finding some information. And not many people are familiar with Korean mythology! I researched at the library at the university near me in Seoul. I was also lucky that one of my friends was a Korean history major and her mom taught religion at the Korean university.
#5 - May 06, 2012, 02:58 AM
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Hi, anon,

I have these three sites bookmarked and use them as a springboard...when something grabs me, I go on to further research it. I don't write in this genre but have developed a keen interest in knowing more (as a reader.) Good luck!

http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/
http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/folktexts.html
http://www.sacred-texts.com/index.htm
#6 - May 06, 2012, 10:47 AM

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Why is this an Anon post?  Nobody's going to make fun of you for asking  something like this.  It's a valid question.  Nobody here's that mean. 

As the others have stated, it's research and being already interested in the subject that helps.  Although, you're still likely to need a little research at some point.  I've got a ton of specific supernatural/paranormal links if you need something along those lines if you want to narrow down your search areas.
#7 - May 06, 2012, 06:02 PM

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Researching fairy tales and folklore is my favorite kind of research. :)

I use the Internet to look up different fairy tales/tropes/etc. And then I read the fairy tales themselves with an analytical eye. You can pick up so much just by soaking the story in, but you can deepen themes, relationships, etc. by asking questions, trying to figure out why the story is the way it is. There are also a number of books written on fairy tale interpretations and analyses (hope that's a word :p). I find those books from googling or through conferences. I haven't really sat down and studied fairy tales and folklore from a more academic standpoint yet, but there is layers and layers of good stuff to be found. :D
#8 - May 06, 2012, 07:38 PM

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I just want to add in that sometimes those authors just make it up. If you can't find info on the creature you want to write about, why not make your own rules and world for it?

For example, Melissa Marr's Faerie books are so in depth and well-written in the world building that it seems like she must've found a wealth of faerie lore but in fact she created much of it herself. (And it was so convincing that it has since turned up in other books, making it seem as if there is this secret cache of faerie knowledge out there somewhere.)

I wouldn't be surprised if this isn't also the case with many other books that feature mythology. (Look at the way werewolves work in Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver series for example. Wolves that change with the temperature. Very different from the typical werewolf story and not really tied to any specific lore.)

At the end of the day, unless there's a specific reason you need your story to be historically accurate or tied to a specific culture's lore, this is research on fictional creatures. There's no real "right" or "wrong" just what is most commonly believed and/or written. You're free to create whatever you want.
#10 - May 07, 2012, 10:04 AM
« Last Edit: May 07, 2012, 10:06 AM by valeriek »
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I just want to add in that sometimes those authors just make it up. If you can't find info on the creature you want to write about, why not make your own rules and world for it?

For example, Melissa Marr's Faerie books are so in depth and well-written in the world building that it seems like she must've found a wealth of faerie lore but in fact she created much of it herself. (And it was so convincing that it has since turned up in other books, making it seem as if there is this secret cache of faerie knowledge out there somewhere.)

I wouldn't be surprised if this isn't also the case with many other books that feature mythology. (Look at the way werewolves work in Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver series for example. Wolves that change with the temperature. Very different from the typical werewolf story and not really tied to any specific lore.)

At the end of the day, unless there's a specific reason you need your story to be historically accurate or tied to a specific culture's lore, this is research on fictional creatures. There's no real "right" or "wrong" just what is most commonly believed and/or written. You're free to create whatever you want.


Valeriek said it best. Excellent analogy.
#11 - May 07, 2012, 10:31 AM
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There are a lot of great replies here.  I'll add my .02 bc this area is my big weakness. . .

I just want to add in that sometimes those authors just make it up. If you can't find info on the creature you want to write about, why not make your own rules and world for it?

For example, Melissa Marr's Faerie books are so in depth and well-written in the world building that it seems like she must've found a wealth of faerie lore but in fact she created much of it herself. (And it was so convincing that it has since turned up in other books, making it seem as if there is this secret cache of faerie knowledge out there somewhere.)

Disclaimer: I'm aware that my approach is NOT the only one. 

That said, I'm someone who gets foaming at the mouth angry over folklore carelessness. Folklore is a passion for me (& eventually will be the area of my next academic degree). I believe that if you want to write it, you need to research it.  Research is critical--whether it's on folklore or police procedure or military (etc etc). Mistakes are fine, but I believe completely that one should start by doing the research whether it's lore or how to embalm a body or bake a pie.   

As to knowing the lore & changing the lore, a lot of what I created is an evolution of the existing lore. As to the knowing faery lore,  I grew up with it. The changling, iron, not crossing water, court & solitary fey--those were all direct from lore.  They are core details. Some species (glaistig & gancanagh) are in the lore; others (rowan fey) weren't.  The courts in the lore are traditionally Seelie & Unseelie. I renamed them as High & Dark and then I added the Summer, Winter, & Shadow courts.  Even those, however, were evolution of the lore. There IS an embodiment of Winter, Cailleach Bheur, but she is solitary.

Basically, I suggest that the making it up should start with the knowing of the lore--ie if you're calling it a faery, it should have lore approp traits AND if you deviate from it, you should explain why in the world-building.  I've had to defend even seemingly little changes. The most amazing of these to me was the removal of the letter "e" from the word for man ("fear"). I had a letter from an angry Irish folklorist complaining that I'd corrupted the spelling of "Fear" because I used the Anglicization, but hadn't done so with "bean." The word "Fear" is pronounced "far" (it means man); bean is said "ban" (woman). We currently spell bean sidhe as "banshee," but I chose to use to the traditional for it & most things--except "fear." I was referring to the Dark Man, an embodiment of death, and the use of the traditional/correct spelling gave death a different tone because the word fear would be read by US readers as "state of being afraid."   Yeah, I spent a while on what seem like little choices, but that letter from a respected folklorist? Scary, scary moment to me. I was glad I had thought long & hard about the choice.

Do you have to? Nope. Some people don't, but I think that our lore is a treasure akin to the art that hangs on museum walls & disrespecting  it is right there with giving the Mona Lisa a pair of shades.  That lore in my faery books is my heritage. I take it seriously. . . which then means that when I'm writing about Assyrian daemons or my spouse's Norse heritage I owe it the same respect. 

At the end of the day, unless there's a specific reason you need your story to be historically accurate or tied to a specific culture's lore, this is research on fictional creatures. There's no real "right" or "wrong" just what is most commonly believed and/or written. You're free to create whatever you want.

You are, but (sorry to argue) knowing the lore is important if you want to use the TERM from the lore.  Yes, people DO call things "faery" or "vampire" that are utterly lacking in folkloric source, but . . . I guess I see it as using correct words in general. I wouldn't call my car a "pony" even though it's nothing like what most people would think of when they hear that word. A pony is a very specific thing, so is a car. If I wanted to write about ponies, I'd research them.  So if you don't want to use the lore, re-name the creature or thing.  Frex, I've written a text that has an addictive drink in it from a natural source. It's not really opium, not really alcohol, not really a drug, but it is all of those. I chose to call it "verrot" (which means rot/decay in Dutch).

If you aren't going to create new names, there are some great research sources for myth of all sorts of places. If you're looking at demonology, the Lesser Key of Solomon is awesome; Welsh myth has the Mabinogion; for Norse, look to the Eddas (Gretir's text is great fun).  If dealing with witches, you should probably look up the Malleus Maleficarum (also called the Hammer of the Witches and/or Der Hexenhammer).  For selchie/selkies/silkies, a nice source is the Orkneyjar website. For them, you might also look up seal biology. For the wolf in my books, I looked up the correct tail positions to convey emotions.

A great overall source is the Sacred Texts site. You can read a lot of source texts that are hard to locate without building up a library. It's still free I think: http://www.sacred-texts.com/

Consult experts too. Folklore geeks are often all too happy to talk lore. :) 

Try a few of the academic journals like The Lion & The Unicorn or The Folklore Journal.  Check out critical theorists too. Jack Zipes is brilliant. Although his book using meme theory is not very readable, the rest are so good. Maria Tatar & Marina Warner are great too.  For critical essays, look to the university press books as opposed to small press (which, while entertaining, can lose their accuracy & be filled with popular but inaccurate data).

Travel is awesome if you can swing it. Arguably, the selchie lore originates in Orkney (which incidentally is also a heavenly place).  Seeing the common seals follow you in the water during a grey foggy day as you walk through World Heritage archaeology sites along the water REALLY makes you get how the stories started. Someday, I'll write the story that comes from that lore & the weeks spent there, but I can already say that I understand that lore differently by being there.  Ditto the eerie feeling crawling into a "faery mound."  I've been inside more cairns that I can count over the past 5 years. From Maeshowe  & Minehowe in Orkney to Newgrange in Ireland to little ones that required absurd hikes OR mound landscape that naturally occurs but isn't actually a cairn at all, being there in the climate, the fog, the sense of being in an otherworldly place. . . it's better than days of reading lore.

Hope that was of some use & doesn't sound too much like craziness.
#12 - May 09, 2012, 10:20 PM
« Last Edit: May 09, 2012, 10:22 PM by Melissa »

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*prints this out and hangs it on my wall*

I'm still learning the best spots for researching this, so thank you for the resources. :)

From what I've seen (and I'm still learning, so am very imperfect in this regard), for something to feel real, it needs a solid base. There's a reason behind every bit of folklore, and learning what that is, incorporating it, and making it your own has the power to deepen the work and the world.
#13 - May 09, 2012, 10:54 PM

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I think one of the points I was trying to make got lost in all my talking. And that was, in regards to anon's question "is there something I'm totally missing?" That it's possible they are not missing anything because the specific bit of lore he/she read about in a novel might not exist anywhere, or be fully based on a known mythology, but rather invented or a twist on something.

And so in that sense I meant if anon went searching for info on to use Melissa's example, the Shadow Court, they aren't going to find specific information on that name, and it's not because they aren't looking in the right places for more insight into faerie lore.

It was meant to be encouraging in addition to the research info already provided, as in, if you read all of the books mentioned before and still don't find what you're looking for, take heart, it might not be there, and you can use your new knowledge to create something all your own.

 
#14 - May 10, 2012, 06:11 AM
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I'll make one minor suggestion - decide how it works for you, and stick to those rules.  I have a project which shall not be named on these boards (not a children's/ya book) in which as it grew I finally realized one day that I needed to rationalize all of this.  So I read up on the existing lore and decided how things worked in my world, and wrote out (seriously) rules and traits for most of the more "powerful" races/beings.  Weaknesses, strengths, magic, etc.  The result is that when I wrote several scenes I "knew" how they had to happen, because the laws of the world I had constructed dictated them.  I also wanted to get to the point where my readers would expect certain behavior because it was consistent with how I had laid out the rules.  Without reading my lexicon, they should know how the higher level powers that be operate. 

Readers will love you for building a world they understand, even if it is different than the interpretation they may be used to.  In fact, that may make them love it more.
#15 - May 10, 2012, 07:32 AM

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I'm with Melissa on this one. As someone who writes about fairies, werewolves, water horses, and now, dead Welsh kings (their own kind of magical creature!), I think that research is crucial. I cannot describe how much I believe that you need to know the folklore before you go about changing it. Not even to keep from angering malevolent folklorists, but because there is a certain grounding effect you get in a novel when you tap into whatever TRUE thing was being tackled by the folklore in the first place. Every myth was designed to answer a question in some culture's mind, and when an author gets in there and mucks about thoughtlessly, you run the risk of losing the RELEVANT part of the myth. When you take that part out, the metaphor, the cultural anchor, all you have is magic.

And you can write a book about just plain old magic, but it will never last like a book where the magic means something else.

Now, it sounds to me like the anon who asked this question already knew this. The "how" part of research sounds daunting, but when you're researching something you're interested in, it doesn't feel like work. I grew up reading Irish/ Scottish folklore, so it's hard for me to remember where I first started. That was pre-Internet days, anyway.

So if I were starting now, I'd actually use the internet to help me narrow down books. If you look something up on Wikipedia, for instance, you'll find there are a list of sources at he bottom of the article. That's the true value of a Wikipedia article for a folklore researcher. Take those titles, punch them into Amazon, see what is "also bought." Check out those books from the library, read 'em, flip to the back, and look at THEIR sources. Read the oldest books you can find -- get to the oldest version of the myth you can manage. Those shiny new "Encylopedia of Monsters" type books are grand for getting ideas, but they skim the surface of things. For a novel length treatment and the REAL reason why the myth exists, you'll have to dig deeper. And often older.

I do all this and then, finally, I change things. And after changing things, then I make things up. I'd always much rather retool a myth than create a new one, but that's personal preference: I want to tap into that deeper meaning that makes a story timeless.

/end very long rant on folklore
#16 - May 11, 2012, 05:41 AM

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I'm with Melissa and Maggie. Research is crucial even if (especially if?) you intend to make something up. Changing the lore is infinitely easier and more convincing if you have a wealth of knowledge behind it.

Quote
Now, it sounds to me like the anon who asked this question already knew this. The "how" part of research sounds daunting, but when you're researching something you're interested in, it doesn't feel like work. I grew up reading Irish/ Scottish folklore, so it's hard for me to remember where I first started. That was pre-Internet days, anyway.

This is really the crux of it. When you love something or are really interested in it, the research can be as much fun as the writing is. Like Maggie, I grew up on myth (for me it was Greek/Roman) and I devoured books on the subject, so it's hard to say when that really started for me. But now, one of my favorite things to do when I go to a new place, whether that's just down the road a ways or across the pond, is find a used book store and visit their "local lore" section. I find that hunting for research materials can be just as fun as doing the research.

I won't go on too long because I think the arguments have already been very well stated, but I'll just add that if you're going to build your own mythology, it's still worth taking the time to understand the landscape of mythology on a symbolic level.
#17 - May 11, 2012, 06:08 AM

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I'm by no means a mythology expert, but I was compelled to post because I just rewrote an Indian folktale that was so horribly botched by another author. Yes, he kept some of the elements, but in rewriting and perhaps a misplaced sense of cleverness turned the folktale on its head but in a way that is completely the opposite. It sheds no light on the culture. None whatsoever. And it's one of the classics, so there is a LOT of information available so I am perplexed why he wrote it the way he did.

So, yes, do your research. Try to understand the culture if you are writing outside your own. You've gotten good advice on how to research and get a feel for why these stories were written, what they show about a particular culture.

Good luck.
Vijaya
#18 - May 11, 2012, 08:07 AM
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myth was designed to answer a question in some culture's mind, and when an author gets in there and mucks about thoughtlessly, you run the risk of losing the RELEVANT part of the myth. When you take that part out, the metaphor, the cultural anchor, all you have is magic.

Slight tangent in re: this very good point that Maggie raised-- There is a book called When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth
(Elizabeth Wayland Barber & Paul T. Barber) on this very thing.  Very very thought provoking (and although it's very academic, it's not DRY).  A recent documentary did a similar thing on the research of Adrienne Mayor (a folklorist at Stanford) showing the relationship between fossils exposed by tectonic shifts & the formation of the monsters of Greek myth. Absolutely brilliant stuff, & presented in an engaging way in the program. (You'd have to google to find the program name.) Oh, and for the vampire one there's Barber's (a folklorist at UC Berkley, iirc) Vampires, Burial, & Death in which he explores (among other things) the postmortem  changes that were conveyed as proof of vampirism . . . and another on the relationship between TB & vampirism in New England. (The only people exhumed for vampirism EVER in the US were in New England. You can visit the graveyard where they rest now.)  I think that one is called Feeding the Dead or Food for the Dead (something along those lines). by Michael Bell (folklorist in RI).

All of the above are great for seeing the links between the real & the lore. It puts the concepts into an interesting context.

. . . and if you want to be saddened, look up poor the late 1800s case of Bridget Cleary who was killed by her family for being a changeling.
#19 - May 11, 2012, 12:14 PM
« Last Edit: May 11, 2012, 12:18 PM by Melissa »

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Shannon Hale has a brief but insightful explanation of her research process on her website:

http://www.squeetus.com/stage/mince_research.html

#20 - May 11, 2012, 02:29 PM

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 :thanx: :exactly:

I LOVE this post! All of this is great information. Fantasy's sort of my thing, and I tend to glean ideas from books, sites, folklore, and then make my own rules for it.

The beautiful thing with Fantasy is that, as long as your rules stay consistent, you can do whatever you want... almost. :)
#21 - May 11, 2012, 04:31 PM

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